Divorce

It's Not Your Imagination: Divorce Rates Are Surging

The numbers reveal the pandemic's toll on relationships.

Posted Oct 13, 2020

The pandemic has not been easy on couples. It hits from all sides: from economic concerns to new working arrangements, from sick family members to managing children's stress and virtual schooling, from being at home more than ever to recommended social distancing from friends and family. The pandemic's burden is made all the heavier because of its uncertainty—we don't know when the pandemic will end.

It's a lot to manage. And for some couples, it's too much. According to Legal Templates, divorce agreement sales saw a staggering 34 percent increase this summer compared to last year. Their data suggest the pandemic's effect was quick: three weeks into quarantine and people were seeking divorces at a rate that outpaced previous years. Shorter marriages appear more at risk. Over half of divorce pursuits documented through Legal Templates were by couples who had been married within the last five years.

The summer might be over, but the adverse effect of the pandemic on marriages continues. This October, a DC-based law firm has reported a 70 percent increase in phone call traffic compared to last year. Divorces are on the rise.

How do we make sense of this trend?

Some speculate that unhappy, but stable, pre-pandemic couples might have remained stable by spending considerable time apart before March 2020. Between commutes, work hours, social engagements, family obligations, and kids' activities, married couples could function day-to-day without spending much time together. Many unhappy couples had sufficient distractions to prevent their attention from settling on the state of their marriage. Stay-at-home orders and social isolation recommendations changed that. Suddenly, couples couldn't ignore their relationship.

These speculations have some bearing: we know that external stressors have a worse effect on couples with pre-existing vulnerabilities, and that COVID-19 has certainly presented an array of stressors. These stressors harm some romantic couples more than others. External stressors can make it hard for some couples to engage in adaptive dyadic processes (e.g., responsiveness, support).

This is problematic because adaptive dyadic processes predict relationship quality, which corresponds with stability. In other words, if a couple already struggled with communication and support, or had other serious (acknowledged or unacknowledged) problems, the added stress brought about by the pandemic likely accentuated these pre-existing issues. Or at least, these couples may have struggled to engage in the necessary partner support that would help their relationship during this difficult time.

Marriages may be another COVID-19 casualty

People divorce for a wide variety of reasons, but these data point to a concerning trend: a rise of divorce in America tied to the pandemic. This means that many people are not only managing the common stressors produced by the pandemic (e.g., isolation, work changes, health concerns), but they are also enduring one of the hardest life transitions, divorce. Divorce is extraordinarily stressful even in a calm world. People considering or experiencing a divorce can seek support to help them navigate this major life event during an unprecedented, stressful time.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.